Saturday, January 22, 2011

Exeter's Country Doctor

The latest "Historically Speaking" column will appear in the January 25th issue of the Exeter News-Letter.

by Barbara Rimkunas

When Dr. William G. Perry opened his office in 1847 in Exeter, he knew he had stiff competition. His father, also named Dr. William Perry, had been practicing medicine in town since 1814 and showed no signs of slowing down. The two men, designated “Old Dr. Perry” and “Young Dr. Perry,” worked in town together for the next 40 years, each serving his own patients but overlapping with great frequency.

“Old” Dr. Perry was not a native of Exeter. Born in 1788 in Norton, Massachusetts, he was a farmer’s son. His father sent his two older brothers to college but had to be coerced into doing the same for his third. It seems he hoped that William would be the one to inherit the farm, but the boy had other ideas. He headed to Union College in New York in 1807, but quickly decided to transfer to Harvard. On the trip home, he just happened to come upon a new-fangled invention called a steamship that was making on if its first voyages down the Hudson River. Hopping aboard, William became one of the first people in America to ride on Robert Fulton’s steamship.

In 1814, in the same year Perry earned his M.D. from Harvard Medical School, the town of Exeter found itself in need of a new – younger- physician. According the Exeter News-Letter, “About this time the people of Exeter were in want of a doctor. Some of the resident physicians were getting old and others lacked moral standing. A number of leading citizens wrote therefore to Dr. Warren, asking him to recommend a young man of promise to fill the vacancy. He at once selected Dr. Perry.” With his mentor’s approval, Perry set up his practice in February of 1814.He would remain in practice until shortly before his death, at the age of 98, in 1887.
He soon proved himself to be an excellent physician and surgeon. In the early years of his practice, doctors performed operations without the benefit of anesthesia, which was frightening for both doctor and patient. The News-Letter would say of Perry, “He was not a rash practitioner, but he could be heroic when heroism was required. A grateful patient whose life was saved by amputation performed when the sufferer was apparently at the last extremity, remarked that his own pain was half forgotten – this was before chloroform was known – when he saw the big drops of sweat upon the surgeon’s brow.”

Doctors in the nineteenth century had to be made of tough stuff. They ministered to all people at all times of day or night, frequently for little or no payment. He wisely allowed himself to be vaccinated for small pox even when advised that the disease was dying out. The advice didn’t seem to apply to Exeter, as small pox was still seen in the town, “he had abundance of work in this line, however. He attended numberless cases, sometimes burying with his own hand, those, who having died of the worst forms of the disease, had been abandoned by their terror-stricken friends.” Such was the life of a village doctor.

Perry didn’t confine himself to the study of medicine; he was also interested in the mechanics of the industrial revolution that came to town in the form of textile mills. Finding that the materials used for sizing cotton fabrics had to be imported from England, he devised a way to make the same type of starch from potatoes. His potato starch mill on the Exeter River just above the Great Bridge operated for several decades, providing sizing for the mills in Lowell. Burned twice, the mill finally was put out of business by its own success. Dr. Perry, had forgotten to patent his discovery and lost customers when a competitor stole his process and set up his own potato starch mill.

Perry also dabbled in dentistry, carving replacement teeth from hippopotamus tusks. He filled cavities with such skill that local dentists remarked on their durability. It may have been his work in dentistry that led him to invent a simplified packing for the treatment of nosebleeds. Exeter’s cotton mill provided the cotton wadding and strong thread that Perry used to pack the nose and later extract the wadding easily – without the use of damaging instruments. It was a simple solution for a difficult problem.

Dr. Perry continued to practice well into his eighties, performing three delicate hernia operations at the age of 87.His skill was such that the News-Letter noted, “a fourth time, when ninety-two, he was equally successful” with another hernia repair. It speaks well of his abilities that his patients harbored no reservations about letting him operate at such an advanced age.

At the time of his death, Perry was the oldest resident of the town of Exeter. “Few men will be more missed by all classes in our community than Dr. Perry,” the News-Letter wrote in his obituary, “He was firm, and sometimes blunt even to roughness, with hypochondriacal patients or those he believed to be shamming. Toward real sufferers he was as gentle and sympathetic as a woman.”

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Dangers of the Horse and Buggy Days

The latest "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the January 7th issue of the Exeter News-Letter.

by Barbara Rimkunas

If the thought of driving on a snowy day keeps you at home, you’d do well to remember that horse-drawn vehicles weren’t much safer than cars. Yes, carriages and sleighs traveled at much slower speeds than we do, and yes, there were fewer drivers out there, but most of our accidents are caused by driver error and cars have become much safer in recent years. There was never anything safe about an open carriage – being ejected from the vehicle was just as dangerous then as it is today. But the primary reason for carriage accidents wasn’t driver error. It was that killer horse.

On July 2, 1864, President Abraham Lincoln’s wife, Mary, was riding into Washington when the driver’s seat on the presidential carriage became loose, pitching the driver off. He was fine, but the terrified horses began to run – taking Mary Lincoln with them. Fearing they would crash, Mary jumped from the carriage. Newspapers reported that the president’s wife was merely bruised, but she suffered a head injury that triggered migraines for the remainder of her life.

Even if the passengers managed to escape, an out of control horse could create havoc for miles. At least car usually stop moving. In May of 1898, the Exeter Gazette, reported, “The most exciting runaway which has taken place for many a day, occurred here Saturday, no less than six teams being mixed up in the affair. Only one person was hurt, however, although nearly every wagon was smashed to kindling wood.”

A horse belonging to O.H. Sleeper, but driven by photographer William Hobbs, suddenly took a fright on Franklin Street tossing both Hobbs and a young companion over the side. The driverless wagon then careened up Water Street smashing into J.W. Berry’s milk wagon before hitting Charles Haley’s fully hitched meat wagon. Haley’s horse then reared and smashed through the glass plate window of the billiard parlor before grazing the wheel of Frank Engel’s wagon. He narrowly missed B. Judson’ Perkin’s carriage, overturned John Sanborn’s buggy and raced down Water Street finally being stopped by the gas house at the base of Green Street.

Meanwhile, the horse who had started it all – Sleeper’s horse – crossed String bridge and headed for Jady Hill, where he was finally captured, “but not enough was left to the wagon to bring home.” Such excitement could really liven up a dull afternoon. At least this incident only resulted in minor injury to Mr. Hobbs.
Hannah Brown, who lived on River Street, reported a sad tale in her diary on February 2nd, 1854; “William and his wife, Fanny, and Charles Warren came over to pass the evening. About ten o’clock they started for home. When they got about half a mile, the horse became unmanageable, the harness gave way going down hill, cause the sleigh to come on the horse feets it frighten him so that William could not hold him, the sleigh upset, they were all thrown into the wall. Lydia was mortally wounded, she survived six days after the accident, Fanny had her teeth broken and her face very much bruised. William and Charles escaped unhurt.” The Exeter News-Letter added, “at the foot of the hill, the horse instead of following a turn in the road, passed straight on over a stone wall into the field.” No amount of defensive driving will help when a horse has lost his senses.

So many accidents were caused by horses that the newspapers were full of accounts. “”L.B. Tilton’s horse, attached to his butcher cart, started on a run from the top of Tower hill Thursday went up Spring street and into the academy grounds, where he was caught by students,” reported the News-Letter in May of 1898. Later that same year, the Conner’s horse fell into a culvert at the corner of Center and Water streets, “Luckily the animal escaped with only a few bruises, but the ladies in the carriage were considerably frightened,” commented the editor.

Author Sarah Orne Jewett, of South Berwick, Maine, ended her writing career after a carriage accident in 1902. “The horse stepped on a rolling stone and fell, throwing Miss Jewett, who held the reins, and Miss Rebecca Young, her seat companion, over the horse’s head. Miss Young escaped with a severe shaking up, but Miss Jewett was considerably injured about the head and spine.” She never fully recovered from the accident.

Although quaint and seemingly rather slow and steady, a wagon or carriage could easily turn into more of a death trap than a Ford Pinto if that one uncontrollable element – the horse – decided to take flight.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

We're Back in Business (and even have heat)!

We have a new beautiful furnace, and it is working efficiently and dependably.  Yay!!!

Therefore, we are back in business!  We hope that you will stop by for a visit to our WARM building during our open hours: Tuesdays and Thursdays, 2 pm to 4:30 pm and Saturdays, 9:30 am to noon.